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Patagonia: The edge of civilisation

Battered by the ocean and worn smooth by violent winds, Tierra del Fuego — the fjord-threaded archipelago hanging off the bottom of Patagonia — represents nature at its most raw and isolation in the extreme. A spectacular expedition cruise through its inky waters will bring you face to face with glaciers, penguins and dolphins: expect a bumpy ride

Patagonia: The edge of civilisation
A Zodiac sets course for the huge Pia Glacier, Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia. Image: Australis.

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Next time you feel inclined to moan about your domestic arrangements, give a thought to Chilean naval officer Andres Valenzuela Yanez. When we shake hands in his small front room at the end of the earth, I don’t know whether to offer him congratulations or sympathy. He’s spending 365 days manning a gale-blown island lighthouse on Cape Horn, the notorious headland that’s claimed more than 800 ships over the centuries.

Where the South American map runs out of land and the Atlantic meets the Pacific in a fury of waves and wind, he lives with his wife, his 12-year-old son and their poodle. The nearest settlement of any note is 75 miles away. “We like it very much here,” he tells me, as the ocean froths outside. “But the dog is the happiest.”

Anchoring at Cape Horn isn’t always possible, so it’s a thrill to set foot here, but I’m not sure I’d want to stay for long. Andres, incidentally, is tasked with transmitting weather forecasts to the wider world every three hours — morning, noon and night, seven days a week. It’s not exactly a glamorous role but every time the Chilean navy recruits for the year-long posting, applications flood in. “Yes,” he smiles proudly. “More than 500 families wanted to live here.”

It figures. The wild, elemental emptiness of Patagonia covers around 260,000sq miles at the continent’s southern tip, incorporating the lower extremities of both Chile and Argentina. On both sides of the border you find raw Andean beauty, a crisp chill and wizened trees leaning permanently leeward. The scrub plateaus go on forever and the mountains are sharp, as if drawn by a child. When I walk through the blustery port town of Punta Arenas, Chile’s Patagonian hub, the South America of street carnivals and football fever seems a long way away.

Traditionally, the town has attracted last-chance settlers and, more recently, hikers en route to Torres del Paine National Park. I’m here, however, to join a four-night expedition cruise through Tierra del Fuego, the tough, fjord-threaded archipelago hanging off the bottom of the mainland. It was the last portion of the New World to be colonised, and it’s also where all three historic navigable routes between the Atlantic and the Pacific are found. For the map-obsessed boy in my head, it’s some prospect.

Land of fire

During the first evening on the ship, it transpires there are 20 nationalities represented among the 150 or so passengers. The travellers clinking pisco sours at the bar have come from as far afield as New Zealand, South Africa, France and the US. It’s an unconscious echo of the fact that for five centuries, and in somewhat less amenable onboard conditions, these same waters have drawn traders, fortune-seekers and sailors from all corners of the globe.

We’re sailing on the Stella Australis, one of two vessels owned by local cruise company Australis, the sole operator licensed to navigate here. The Chilean flag flies from the bow mast. “Welcome to Tierra del Fuego,” announces the captain on the first night. Outside a Patagonian sunset melts red behind a row of black peaks. “We’ll try to get you through the next four days in one piece.”

I wake early the next morning and step onto deck just before dawn. The ship is gloriously alone. We’re sailing through the inky waters of Admiralty Sound, flanked by high, serrated hills; it’s possible to make out snow gullies on the slopes. Ahead of us, I spy a large ship, and selfishly it shifts my whole perception of the scene for the worse — I’d thought we were unaccompanied. Then, as we approach, the intruder vessel reveals itself to be nothing more than a humped island, woolly with trees. Peace is restored, and our isolation magnified.

Tierra del Fuego translates as ‘Land of Fire’, a reference to the native campfires seen here by early explorers. With depressing inevitability, the various indigenous groups that once lived here — most prominently the Yaghan people — are no longer to be found. European settlers in the mid-1800s brought sheep, which, not unreasonably, the Yaghan began to hunt. The rest of the story can be guessed at.

Returning to the ship with the Cordillera Darwin mountain range in the background, Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia. Image: Australis.

Returning to the ship with the Cordillera Darwin mountain range in the background, Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia. Image: Australis.

By 9.30am, we’ve stopped at Ainsworth Bay for our first landing. Before us are the mighty, ice-mantled peaks of the Darwin Cordillera, named after Charles Darwin, a visitor to the area on research surveys aboard HMS Beagle. The ship was involved in a controversy of its own, when the crew kidnapped four indigenous youths and took them back to the UK as a ‘social experiment’.

“We’re walking right now on a lateral moraine,” says our guide, Rudy, hurtling me back to school geography lessons. He’s leading 10 of us on a shoreline nature walk. “This whole landscape was formed by glaciers. And look, some of these mosses and lichens grow only here and in Antarctica.” Rudy encourages us to stop, stare and think a while, and for three minutes the only noise is the drip-drip of snowmelt on rock.

I hope, at this first landing, to see a colony of elephant seals. They don’t emerge, but we do encounter several beaver-gnawed tree trunks. Beavers, I hear, are a menace in Patagonia. In the 1940s, 25 breeding pairs were introduced from North America in the misguided hope of establishing a fur trade on Tierra del Fuego. Without any predators, the beavers thrived, and today, astonishingly, more than 50,000 are on hand to clog and dam the ecosystem.

Also here in large numbers are Magellanic penguins. In the afternoon, we see numerous groups on the low-lying Tucker Islets — busy, smelly little characters, moulting a confetti of feathers over the rocks. Above them, skuas (seabirds) circle for food. I read later that when Sir Francis Drake was here in 1578, he and his men culled 3,000 penguins for meat. Apparently, the birds had ‘not the best taste, but were perfectly eatable’.

Tierra del Fuego is full of stories of seafarers. Magellanic penguins take their name from Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who revolutionised world trade when he came here in 1520 and discovered a strait that led to the Pacific, bringing Asia’s spice islands closer to Europe. Almost a century later, two navigators from the Netherlands broke similar ground when they realised the continent ended in a wall of cliffs that could, with skill, be rounded. They named it after the Dutch city of Hoorn; hence, Cape Horn.

Together with the later discovery of a third ocean-to-ocean passage — the Beagle Channel, dedicated to Darwin’s vessel — these shipping routes took on vital importance until the Panama Canal opened in 1914. When we sail the northwest arm of the Beagle Channel the next morning, the only life astir is a fast-flying flock of king cormorants, necks outstretched. Then someone points out a pair of seals in the shallows, and five minutes later, away to starboard, a southern right whale flashes a massive tail. So the waters are still busy — just in a different way.

To the cape

As the cruise continues, the untamed scenery ramps up. We reach the Pia Glacier, and are shuttled to shore in rigid inflatable boats. While we’re standing there feeling small, a church-sized wedge of ice is calved from its rough-hewn front wall, crashing into the milky-blue water with a noise like thunder. It’s a savage, rousing sight to witness. One of the crew hands me a hot chocolate with whisky — you have to stay warm in Tierra del Fuego, but it’s worthwhile.

We’re now at 55 degrees latitude, sailing among the last belchings of land before Antarctica. I retire to my cabin just in time to see a pod of Peale’s dolphins fizzing under my window, cresting the water’s surface. For a full minute, they keep pace with the ship. Later that evening, we sail past a succession of equally huge glaciers.

Passengers disembark a Zodiac on an uncharacteristically quiet day at Cape Horn, , Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia. Image: Australis.

Passengers disembark a Zodiac on an uncharacteristically quiet day at Cape Horn, , Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia. Image: Australis.

In the morning, we reach the natural amphitheatre of Wulaia Bay, and, like Darwin more than 185 years earlier, journey ashore. I climb to a lookout, from where the bay becomes a spread of snowy peaks and purple islands. Far below, the ship suddenly seems tiny, a slip of a thing in a watery wilderness. You enjoy the primal seclusion of a view like this in a different way when you know the little vessel in the foreground holds roast beef and Chilean Malbec, and that in an hour, it’s going to sail you away.

Having spent the entire voyage in Chilean waters, we’re due to disembark for good in Ushuaia, Argentina. Before then, we’ve business on Cape Horn. Around 30% of Australis’s sailings have to abort their landings, and an hour away the waves start churning. On deck, a black-browed albatross wheels overhead in the ferocious wind. As the cape becomes visible in the distance, I’m resigned to the thought that the dark, angular landmass may remain just that: a far-off sight.

Then, without warning, the wind drops to plain old gale-strength. The all-clear is given. When I climb the 160 steps to the lighthouse at the bottom of the world, drizzle-spattered and gust-battered, I’m struck by how small the island is. To the south, endless ranks of white-tipped waves charge in. Andres and his family seem delighted we’ve landed — mostly, I suspect, because it breaks their routine. On leaving, I wish him well and, out of curiosity, ask him how he keeps abreast of mainland news. “Television,” he answers matter-of-factly. I’m shocked. Really? “Yes, of course,” he says. Then he grins. “Even on Cape Horn, we need football.”


Getting there
There are no direct international flights from the UK to Chile. Iberia, Tam, KLM and Air France are among the airlines offering services to and from Santiago, via their respective hubs. iberia.com   tam.com.br   klm.com   airfrance.co.uk

British Airways flies direct from Heathrow to Buenos Aires. ba.com

LAN Airlines, Aerovías DAP and Sky Airline serve Punta Arenas from within South America. lan.com   aeroviasdap.cl   skyairline.cl

Aerolíneas Argentinas, LAN Airlines and LADE serve Ushuaia. aerolineas.com.ar   lan.com   lade.com.ar

Average flight time: 20h.


Getting around
It’s possible to travel by road to and from both Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, but due to the distances, flying is the most sensible option. Punta Arenas is around 1,860 miles from Santiago; Ushuaia is around 1,470 miles from Buenos Aires.


When to go
Between September and April, during the warmest months of the year for the Southern Hemisphere, with temperatures around 20C.


Need to know
Visas: UK citizens don’t require a visa for either Chile or Argentina.
Currency: Chilean peso (CLP); £1 = CLP920. Argentine peso (ARS); £1 = ARS13.3.
Health: Your only real requirements on the cruise will be warm, waterproof clothing and a basic level of fitness.
International dial code: Chile: 00 56; Argentina: 00 54.
Time difference: Chile: GMT -4; Argentina: GMT -3.


More info
In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin. RRP: £8.99. (Vintage Classics)


How to do it
The four-night Punta Arenas-Ushuaia cruise on the Stella Australis costs from $1,440 (£864) and includes accommodation, sea transportation, all meals, an open bar on board, shore excursions and onboard entertainment. Departures are every Saturday from 20 September 2014 to 28 March 2015. australis.com

Published in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)